Homelessness has many causes - not just the lack of a home, argues Jeremy Swain
The long path to recovery
There is a ‘fact’ doing the rounds on Twitter which juxtaposes the information that Madonna has, allegedly, eight mansions in London with the number of homeless people in the capital. The implicit proposition here is that homelessness could be ended if only the ostentatious wealth of the celebrated performer were redirected for the social purpose of housing the homeless.
I found the image of hundreds of homeless people living in communal nirvana in Madonna’s mansions entertainingly surreal. This injustice ‘fact’ has been re-tweeted with gusto, so presumably there really are people who think solving homelessness is a matter of matching people with accommodation, whether a mansion or a bedsit, and that’s it - job done.
The truth is that homeless people - especially those living on the streets or close to it, in hostels, squats and bed and breakfast hotels - have a complex mix of needs. These include poor mental health, substance misuse problems, poor literacy skills and limited, sometimes destructive, social networks. The impact of these factors were comprehensively demonstrated through an impressive piece of research into multiple exclusion homelessness which deserves much greater attention than it has so far received.
The research from Heriot-Watt University investigates a group of 1,286 socially excluded people using ‘low-threshold’ services such as day centres, direct access hostels and drop-in services and then analyses in greater depth the impact of social exclusion and homelessness on 452 individuals from this cohort.
The research provides a number of illuminating, occasionally shocking, statistics, including that 39 per cent of the multiply excluded homeless had attempted suicide. It evidences childhood abuse and neglect as a major determinant of the more complex forms of multiple exclusion homelessness. Intriguingly, the researchers place in a timeline the various events that contribute to individuals becoming socially excluded. The life history of a typical chronically socially excluded person thus follows a grim trajectory. Most leave home, or local authority care, around the age of 17. Street drinking and dependency on alcohol and hard drugs commences early, from around 17 to 22, and early signs of deteriorating mental health exhibited through bouts of anxiety and depression also arrive in the early twenties. The experience of rough sleeping homelessness occurs relatively late along the timeline, on average at the age of 26.
Housing problems are not therefore the major factor triggering or shaping the journey destined to end in multiple exclusion homelessness. However, the researchers note that settled housing is likely to be an important factor in providing a base from which the socially excluded can seek a pathway towards stability and independence.
I suspect this timeline sequence will be of little surprise to the experienced hostel worker, well aware that tackling homelessness is about a great deal more than resolving a housing problem. It is certainly of no surprise to my colleague Ben, a competent, dedicated outreach worker. Ben talks eloquently about his life as part of his personal commitment to encouraging others to change theirs. It is a story that in its bleakness is not easy to hear.
Ben’s early life was blighted by his father’s violence. He talks about him and his brothers cowering in fear when their father returned home, a home they shared with an alcoholic mother. Although his actual violence was infrequent, the threat was constant. His older brother, learning from the father that aggression confers domination over weaker people, systematically and brutally bullied Ben.
At this early stage his life compass was set towards disaster. He left school without qualifications, devoid of self-esteem and unable to form constructive relationships. Despite qualifying as a plasterer, his self-hatred left him exposed to manipulation and he was introduced to heroin and became heavily dependent. His worst moment, he tells me, was sitting in a burned out car trying to find a vein that could take a needle and knowing that around him people were passing by, oblivious to him and his life.
Finding a way
Somehow this deeply impressive man overcame these massive disadvantages. I ask how the miracle had occurred that enabled him to deal with his traumatic past and develop the determination, resilience and self-belief to shape a new life. Ben has sought and embraced individual and group counselling and the insight that it has brought him has clearly been of great benefit. He talks frankly about the journey of recovery from heroin misuse and remains relentlessly watchful and self-questioning to avoid falling back into old ways.
He has been especially inspired by another former homeless person, a man who also suffered from appallingly limited life chances and was forced to confront a severe alcohol problem. It reminds me of the potent power of peer support; the strength derived from another who has faced the same challenges and become the role model who has successfully plotted a course away from addiction and self-destruction.
The multiple exclusion homelessness research rings true, yet the extreme grimness of the life histories it illuminates could give rise to abject despondency and a sense of hopelessness. I need to hear Ben’s story of redemption.
As the final question I ask Ben what he likes about himself. He laughs ruefully; it sounds like pride mixed with remorse. ‘I like myself for having compassion for people despite everything that I have experienced and done,’ he says.
It is a good and true answer spoken with confidence and it leaves me pensive and then, suddenly and unexpectedly, just a little choked up.
Jeremy Swain is chief executive of Thames Reach